A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who killed a suspected drug trafficker during a raid in a remote region of Honduras was part of an aggressive new enforcement strategy that has sharply increased the interception of illegal drug flights.
The mission, called Operation Anvil, is run with six U.S. State Department helicopters, as well as a special team of DEA agents who work with Honduran police to move more quickly and pursue suspicious flights, according to a U.S. official in Honduras who couldn’t be named for security reasons.
In little more than two months since the operation started, it has intercepted four flights. That compares to only seven from mid-2010 to the end of 2011 — less than one every two months.
The U.S. official said about 100 flights of suspicious origin come into Honduras every year.
With the new operation, Honduran and U.S. drug agents follow every flight they detect of unknown origin and work with non-U.S. contract pilots who don’t have the restrictive rules of engagement that the U.S. military do.
The area of Brus Laguna, where the DEA says an agent shot a drug suspect as he was reaching for his gun Saturday, is part of the remote Mosquitia region that is dotted with clandestine airstrips and a network of rivers for carrying drugs to the coast.
Saturday’s incident marked the first time that a DEA agent has killed someone in Central America since the agency began deploying specially trained agents several years ago to accompany local law enforcement personnel on all types of drug raids throughout the region, said DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden.
A May 11 raid by Honduran police with DEA advisers, also under Operation Anvil, killed four people and wounded four others, whom locals said were innocent civilians traveling the river at night. Honduran and DEA officials have said people on the boat fired first and the lawmen were acting in self-defense. The DEA said none of its agents fired their guns in that incident.
Operation Anvil also netted cocaine shipments on May 6 in the Mosquitia and June 13 in Olancho state, totaling more three quarters of a ton of cocaine in about two months.
The weekend raid was a “great example of positive U.S.-Honduran cooperation,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Stephen Posivak in Tegucigalpa.
But the aggressive tactics have come under fire from human rights groups and some political interests in Washington, especially since the May 11 attack.
The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras filed a complaint in May with the regional prosecutor in the Gracias a Dios region where the attack occurred, claiming human rights violations by Honduran and U.S. authorities.
The group’s investigation concluded that the dead and wounded were innocent civilians.
Operation Anvil is part of an overall increase in U.S. efforts in Honduras, where drug trafficking and murder rates have spiked in the last year or so.
With 82 murders per 100,000 people, the U.N. lists Honduras as the most dangerous country in the world. Its national police force is rife with corruption, with some calling it one of country’s main organized crime operations.